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Perspective

The heaviest hand

Sure, many kids today are overweight. But the obesity police are stepping over the line.

By Jennifer Graham
February 28, 2010

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It took less than two minutes to weigh and measure my son, not a big deal in a six-hour school day. Galen got on the scale without protest. At 4 foot 10, he weighs about 88 pounds, which, according to his pediatrician, is normal for a 10-year-old boy. Getting weighed -- whether at school, the doctor’s office, or the weight-height-and-horoscope machine at the service plaza -- is no great trauma for a beanstalk of a boy. And fourth-graders, as a species, are generally amenable to whatever grown-ups ask them to do. They have not yet learned that challenging authority is normal and rewarding and usually not fatal, unless you happen to live in Iran.

Galen has a modicum of manners, which is why it would never occur to him that the logical thing to do, when asked for one’s measurements outside of a doctor’s office or a Weight Watchers meeting, would be to harrumph “That, ma’am, is none of your business” and indignantly flounce out of the place. Better to offend a few bureaucrats than to one day find your vital stats on the Web.

Because that, course unchanged, is where we’re headed. The heavy hand of the obesity police is upon us, and it wants to know the circumference of our waists. It used to be that only the cool skinny kids wore Levis, their waist size stamped on the back for all the world to see. In the future, all trousers will declare our measurements; they will be our licenses to eat.

If you think this is overreaching, I have two words for you: Google Earth. Just a decade ago, we would have chortled at the idea that photographs of our backyards, taken without our knowledge or permission, would be accessible to anyone on the Internet. No one’s laughing now. From our backyards to our backsides, it’s not that far of a stretch.

Massachusetts schools have weighed and measured our children since the 1950s, but this is the first year that they have calculated their body mass indexes and put the information in their files. The purpose of collecting BMIs, the school nurse said in a letter, is to give us, the ignorant parents, “information about your child’s weight status and ideas for living a healthy life.”

This might be useful information if my children attended a boarding school in Beverly Hills. As it stands, they live with me, and, as the purchaser and launderer of their blue jeans, I have a pretty good grasp of their “weight status.” As do the schools. All fourth-graders must have a physical, whether they play sports or not. Don’t ask how I know this, but if they don’t have a current physical on file, the school will threaten to kick the child out.

So, not only are the schools wasting time compiling information they already have, but they also then use it to lecture parents about stuff we already know. Is there any person older than 12 who couldn’t write a fact-infested article titled “Ideas for Living a Healthy Life”? Even the morbidly obese know how to lose weight; it’s not information we lack.

Which makes the federal government’s plan to spend $650 million to combat obesity and smoking nothing but so much pork. Michelle Obama, who has two slender daughters and spends a lot of time in sleeveless shifts, has taken on childhood obesity as her cause. Terrific, everyone’s against fat kids. One in three American children is overweight, as are two-thirds of our nation’s adults.

But obesity is not a group problem and can’t be solved by committee. A byproduct of prosperity in a culture of excess, it will persist as long as food, leisure, and farm subsidies are abundant -- or until Mississippi and Alabama secede. Someday there may be a vaccine. In the glory that is capitalism, there are multitudes of scientists, nutritionists, and lab rats working on this problem each day. Until then, it is a matter of individual resolve.

Apologies to Tolstoy, but every fat person is fat in his or her own way. One is overweight because of an overbearing mother; another because of an underperforming thyroid; another because (ahem) she likes butter pecan ice cream too much. The obesity police can yammer on about health risks and insurance pools and looming costly diseases, and we’ll go right on eating our cannoli. Mrs. Obama and the public schools can’t thin the herd; the herd has to thin itself. What the government can and should do is defend our liberties and respect our privacy, or else the Biggest Loser is us.

Jennifer Graham is a freelance writer outside Boston. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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